Staff Columnist

Impact of Iowa's voter ID law remains unknown

Even if voter ID won't sway elections, it's still a stupid law

(from left) Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and Senior Cybersecurity Advisor for the US Department of Homeland Security Matt Masterson hold a press conference on an election cybersecurity initiative at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
(from left) Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and Senior Cybersecurity Advisor for the US Department of Homeland Security Matt Masterson hold a press conference on an election cybersecurity initiative at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Iowa is conducting an experiment in election integrity. Or voter suppression, depending on who you ask.

State officials say the June 5 primary is the “soft rollout” of a new election law passed by Republican legislators last year, including a controversial rule requiring voters to show identification before they cast a ballot. Voters won’t be turned away this time if they can’t prove their identity, but leaders are telling Iowans to be prepared for the coming changes.

Republicans say that’s a common-sense measure to prevent election fraud, while Democrats say it’s a politically motivated attempt to turn block those who tend to vote for Democrats.

“It’s important that Iowans understand that precinct officials are now required to ask voters for their identification at the polls. This year is a soft rollout, so if you are registered to vote but do not have your ID, you can sign an oath swearing to your identity, or another eligible voter can attest for you,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement released this month.

I am firmly opposed to voter ID. Without clear evidence of widespread voter fraud, the requirement is a waste of time and money. And to my anti-authoritarian ears, “show me your ID” sounds too much like “papers, please,” the refrain of a police state. Free humans should not be forced to carry around a government-issued piece of plastic in order to exercise their rights.

But from a practical standpoint, I’m also skeptical of the liberal alarmists who say the regulations will disenfranchise legitimate voters en masse. The research on the subject seems to agree.

Studies over the past decade have found voter ID laws do indeed negatively impact voter participation among traditionally Democratic demographic groups. However, no credible study has shown the numbers are large enough to sway election results.

The left-leaning number crunchers at Vox concluded, “ … voter ID laws may not have a strong enough effect on voter turnout, based on the available research so far, to swing anything but the closest election.”

One reason the impact of voter ID is minimal may be the fact Americans simply aren’t very fond of voting compared to our peers around the globe.

The United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries in terms of eligible adults who vote, according to figures published last week by the Pew Research Center. Researchers reported about 56 percent of voting-age Americans cast ballots in 2016.

By that measure, the United States ranks 26 among the 32 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which had data available. Belgium, Sweden and Denmark have voter participation rates above 80 percent, according to the Pew analysis.

So how does that relate to the impact over voter ID laws?

Several recent analyses comparing voters to non-voters reached the same conclusion: The older and wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote. Coincidentally, those groups also are more likely to carry an up-to-date ID card. So the people most likely to be turned away by ID requirements are less likely to vote anyway, even without a voter ID law in place.

A close look at the turnout data following the June primary may provide some early clues about whether voter ID is a significant burden for Iowa voters. However, like all elections, those figures will only capture a moment of our long political history, and turnout is affected by a long list of variables.

Maybe voter ID laws won’t swing elections. But just like Republicans say one case of voter fraud is too many, it also is too many for one legitimate voter to be denied the opportunity to cast a ballot.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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